KUNSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea -- All my life, I've craved adventure. I've been to several European countries and Canada, and can now add the Republic of Korea to my list of life travels as well.
Recently, 11 Wolf Pack Airmen and I were given the opportunity to join 23 other ROK airmen on a two-day tour. The tour included travelling to Sunchang Gochujang Village, ROK, Mount Gangchun Park, ROK, and Jeonju Han-ok Village, ROK.
Each village offered much to do and learn. Our first stop was to Sunchang Gochujang Village to take a cooking class. The class taught us how to make red chili pepper paste and rice cakes, as well as how to pop rice. For me, the most fascinating part of this class was making rice-cakes.
Now I know what you're thinking; we probably just put rice in a pot of boiling water and waited ten minutes - big deal. Well, you're wrong. What we actually did was go outside to a courtyard with a big, special stone bowl made for pounding cooked rice, and lying next to it were two big wooden hammers.
Everyone was pretty confused as to what we were going to do with these 'tools,' until the instructor informed us we would be pounding the cooked rice into dough. Each of us took turns with the hammer, which by the way was a good workout.
Once the rice turned to dough, we cut it into pieces, sprinkled some type of heavenly spice on top and voila, we were enjoying fresh rice cakes made from scratch.
Next on the agenda: a three-hour hike at Mount Gangchun Park. If anyone overindulged at the cooking class, it didn't matter; they were going to work it all off here. The weather was perfect and the vegetation was beautiful. We saw nature at its best.
We had our own tour guide during the hike, and we made a lot of stops to admire different parts of the trail. We saw a mountain shaped like a turtle, a temple and a yard filled with wish towers. Wish towers are stacks of flat rocks piled up as high as possible, some are little, and others are big. If you ever go on this tour, bring your camera - you'll need it.
After our hike , we made our way to the hotel, which was actually more like a small house. We removed our shoes at the entrance and checked in. Each room was furnished with a traditional Korean bed. Oh, and in case you don't know , it's basically a big, very low-sitting table, without a mattress. We did however have more than enough blankets and pillows to make it comfortable.
Once we were settled, we made our way to a little eatery where we shared a chicken soup dinner.
You're probably thinking: chicken soup - really? Well, this chicken soup is probably nothing like what you used to eat as a child, unless your soup contained an entire small chicken, complete with rice stuffed inside. You would be a fool not to love the broth, and the small array of vegetables and egg noodles in the soup. Can you say amazing? Yup, pretty much.
After a good night's sleep, we woke up early the next day to travel to the downtown area of Jeonju Han-ok Village. One word just about sums up this village: extraordinary.
Why? Imagine time-honored architecture of Korean culture intricately fused with modern-day technology. See it now? Yes, it's extraordinary.
Our tour of the city included a trip to a paper-making factory and shrine. The thing I noticed right away - paper-making is a time-consuming process. I had no idea they go to such lengths to make paper.
The process consisted of dipping the paper into water, bringing it back out and using a syringe-like tool to drain the water out, and then back into the water it went. These steps were repeated at least five times. That's only the first part of the process. After the water portion, the paper is taken over to another area to be steamed and ironed out. Once ironed out to perfection, each sheet was hung.
Needless to say, making this paper requires a whole lot of patience. I for one cannot imagine having to make it, and now have a deep respect for those who do.
Moving onto the next portion of the tour, we had the pleasure of viewing the Gyeonggijeon Shrine, which was erected in 1410. There we learned about much of the history of the Korea. At the shrine, we viewed many portraits of late kings. The shrine was actually partially destroyed in 1592 during the invasion of foreign forces. It was rebuilt in 1614 and to this day, remains an awe-inspiring structure.
Once we concluded our tour, we stopped for lunch. This wasn't any ordinary lunch though; it was a royal Korean multiple-course meal. It included at least ten different courses. So yes, we literally ate like kings.
The first course consisted of Kimchi and other local delicacies for appetizers. We then moved onto many different plates of meat, bowls of soup and of course, dishes of rice. If you left hungry, there was something wrong.
Our day concluded with making paper lanterns and participating in a masked dance. The lanterns were already assembled for us; we just needed to add the finishing touches. This included gluing paper mache-like material to add a little color.
The masked dance class was an in-depth learning experience indeed. First of all, if someone had a bad back or hurt knee, they weren't doing this portion of the tour. Jumping is a very important part of the dragon dance as it makes the movement more life-like and natural.
The instructor patiently taught us the choreography, and had no problem going over the steps as much as we needed. Once most of us got the hang of it, he helped volunteers put on the masks and complete the dance. Was all the effort worth it? Yes. The experience was truly one of a kind and I couldn't be happier.
After thanking all of our teachers, we loaded the bus and headed back to Kunsan, quite exhausted - which, in my opinion, is the way any successful tour should end.
Tours like these are invaluable for both the U.S. and ROK airmen. Not only did it give American Airmen the chance to learn about the Korean culture, but it also gave us the opportunity to really interact with the ROK airmen.
We didn't wear uniforms the entire time. There was no rank involved. When we interacted, it was to get to know one another on a personal level. This type of interaction isn't very common during our day-to-day operations, yet so beneficial when it comes to building camaraderie among the forces.
This tour was a trip I'll never forget. I'm so glad I had the opportunity to learn about and experience this fascinating culture.
If you haven't already explored, go! You won't regret it. Don't waste your time in Korea sitting around playing video games. If you explore while you're here, you'll look back and be so grateful you did.